Classic History Books


The History of England by A. E. Pollard

of miraculous transubstantiation, upon which ultimately was based the claim of the priesthood to special
privileges and estimation. But his association with the extreme forms of social agitation, which

accompanied the Lollard movement, is less clear.

Before the end of Edward III's reign the French war had produced a crop of disgrace, disorder, and
discontent. Heavy taxation had not availed to retain the provinces ceded to England at the Treaty of

Bretigny in 1360, and hordes of disbanded soldiery exploited the social disorganization produced by the

Black Death; a third of the population was swept away, and many villeins deserted their land to take up

the more attractive labour provided in towns by growing crafts and manufactures. The lords tried by

drastic measures to exact the services from villeins which there were not enough villeins to perform; and

the imposition of a poll-tax was the signal for a comprehensive revolt of town artisans and agricultural

labourers in 1381. Its failure did not long impede their emancipation, and the process of commuting

services for rent seems to have gone on more rapidly in the first half of the fifteenth than in the

fourteenth century. But the passionate preaching of social equality which inflamed the minds of the

insurgents produced no further results; in their existing condition of political education, the peasant and

artisan had perforce to be content with watching the struggles of higher classes for power.

Richard II, who had succeeded his grandfather in 1377, reaped the whirlwind of Edward's sowing, not so
much in the consequences of the war as in the fruits of his peerage policy. The fourteenth century which

nationalized the Commons, isolated the Lords; and the baronage shrank into the peerage. The word

"peer" is not of English origin, nor has it any real English meaning. Its etymological meaning of "equal"

does not carry us very far; for a peer may be equal to anything. But the peers, consisting as they do of

archbishops, dukes, marquises, earls, viscounts, bishops, and barons, of peers who are lords of parliament

and of peers who are neither lords of parliament nor electors to the House of Commons, are not even

equal to one another; and certainly they would deny that other people were equal to them. The use of the

word in its modern sense was borrowed from France in the fourteenth century; but in France it had a

meaning which it could not have in England. A peer in France claimed equality with the crown; that is to

say, he was the ruler of one of the great fiefs which had been equal to the county of Paris when the count

of Paris had been elected by his equals king of France. If the king of Wessex had been elected king of

England by the other kings of the Heptarchy, and if those other kings had left successors, those

successors might have claimed to be peers in a real sense. But they had no such pretensions; they were

simply greater barons, who had been the tenants-at-will of their king.

The barons, however, of William I or Henry II had been a large class of comparatively small men, while
the peers of Richard II were a small class of big men. The mass of lesser barons had been separated from

the greater barons, and had been merged in the landed gentry who were represented by the knights of the

shire in the House of Commons. The greater barons were summoned by special and individual writs to

the House of Lords; but there was nothing to fetter the crown in its issue of these writs. The fact that a

great baron was summoned once, did not mean that he need be summoned again, and the summons of the

father did not involve the summons of his eldest son and successor. But gradually the greater barons

made this summons hereditary and robbed the crown of all discretion in the matter, though it was not till

the reign of Charles I that the House of Lords decided in its own favour the question whether the crown

had the power to refuse a writ of summons to a peer who had once received one.

With this narrowing of the baronage, the barons lost the position they had held in the thirteenth century
as leaders of constitutional reform, and this part was played in the fourteenth century by the knights of

the shire. The greater barons devoted themselves rather to family than to national politics; and a system

 

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